I don't 'do' Mother's Day (National Post, May 05, 2004)



This Sunday mothers around the world will be honoured with long distance calls, flowers, chocolates, hotel brunches and gifts chosen with greater (or lesser) than normal care by their fond (or fondness-affecting) children. But I will not be one of them, for my children will ignore Mother's Day as has been their custom for many a year.

Curb your compassion, for they come by their neglect of me on that day honestly. From earliest toddlerhood my children learned that I didn't "do" Mother's Day. They were saddened at first, especially when they saw the fuss being made over other mothers, but I told them they would thank me for my apostasy when they were older. And so it came to pass.

My decision to abandon Mother's Day hit me as a kind of epiphany when -- still childless -- my husband and I took his mum out for a Mother's Day brunch at a normally pleasant local restaurant. The hour-long lineup, the substandard food, the inflated prices, the smarmily presented rose -- above all the necessity for pretending there was nothing else one would rather be doing on a gorgeous Sunday in May: all conspired to prompt a voice inside me (with an English accent, sounding remarkably like the Duchess of Duke Street from the eponymous British TV series) to say: "when you have your own children, start as you mean to go on."

So on the second Sunday in the May following the birth of my first child, I nailed my theses to the kitchen bulletin board, so to speak. At first I received my kids' grubby, lovingly scrawled handmade cards with theatrical gratitude befitting their tender years, but eventually the light dawned on them that their mother was not a "believer" and for want of encouragement the cards and dandelion bouquets and burnt-toast breakfasts in bed ground to a halt. (We all forgot to warn my son's wife who sent me flowers on the first Mother's Day after their wedding. I diplomatically implied they contained a lifetime's worth of homage.)

Am I a grinch? Curb your annoyance and consider how the nature of motherhood has changed since 1907 when spinster Anna Jarvis undertook a campaign to establish a national Mother's Day to commemorate her mother's death. I can understand Anna's reverence for the mothering role. Up to her era and for many years afterward, motherhood was thrust upon women, not something they chose. Motherhood was fraught with peril and at the least meant years of tedium and considerable toil, not to mention the deferment or outright renunciation of a woman's ambitions in the wider world.

One can see why children used to be choked up with guilt over the life of self-sacrifice their mothers had freely committed themselves to on their families' behalf. Mothers then were rather like soldiers, enlisting for duty in the service of a greater cause: the soldiers to defend their country's sovereignty, mothers to perpetuate and preserve the stability of the social order. In both cases the institution's strength -- the military and society -- depended upon the subjugation of individual will to a collective purpose. Both knew the risks; few complained of the hardships. Seen in that heroic light, of course mothers deserved the honours bestowed by a grateful nation. But that was then.

Mothers aren't heroes anymore (although I read last week of a woman -- there are 26 more like her in Canada -- with 10 children who hasn't ruled out having more. Let them be feted on Mother's Day). For most of us, though, self-sacrifice is out, self-interest is in. Be a mother or don't. Have one baby or more. Bear them like Eve (with a pain-blocking injection) or book a C-section. Nurse or bottle feed. Be married or single. Be straight or gay. Be 20 or 40. Work or stay home. Or stay home and then work. Inconveniently pregnant? Abort. And lest we forget: diapers today are disposable! (Think about it.)

In retrospect, I realize my discomfort with Mother's Day goes beyond aesthetic distaste for "Hallmark" occasions drenched in manipulative sentimentality that lack any personal significance. The nitty-gritty: I have no wish to wear a purple heart commissioned to reward a previous generation's heroic achievements.

Finally, Mother's Day is, apart from its anachronistic qualities, a little sad in its implications, no? After all, if your children need Mother's Day to remind themselves to call or send flowers, what does that say for the relationship in general? And if you have an ongoing relationship with your kids, why must they further salute you in lockstep with 50 million others?

But hey, I'm not suggesting Mother's Day should be abolished for those who enjoy it. All I'm suggesting is that out of respect for those departed mothers in whose name it was created: maybe ... curb your enthusiasm?

© National Post 2004